Experts and advocates are still trying to understand what last week’s State of the Union address will mean for international relations in the second year of President Donald Trump’s administration. When it came to foreign policy, the speech was light on specifics but wide-ranging in its implications for the Iran nuclear deal and the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump was perhaps no more vague than in his condemnation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, a shift from the campaign when he told AIPAC that his top priority would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal.”
In the speech, Trump — who declined to recertify the deal in October and has waived sanctions on the Iranian government since — called on Congress to make changes to the deal.
“When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom,” Trump said. “I am asking the Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible deal.”
But the shift in tone has done nothing to quell the support of Sarah Stern, president of the right-wing Endowment for Middle East Truth, which lobbied against the deal when it was negotiated and has called on Trump to withdraw from it.
“Essentially, we’re feeling that President Trump has said all the right things about Iran,” Stern said. “When he sent the Iranian nuclear deal back to Congress, he realized what President Obama had done is not so easy to extract ourselves from.”
Stern blamed the international nature of the accord — the United States was one of six world powers to enter into the agreement — with the slow pace of change. More than a year in, the Trump administration has made no substantive changes to the treaty.
But those who support the deal aren’t breathing a sigh of relief just yet.
“There was decent reason to believe that upon coming into office, he’d immediately take severe steps to undermine the agreement,” said Logan Bay, director of communications for the left-leaning J Street. “So it’s certainly a good thing that we’re over a year into this presidency, and the agreement, which is working, remains intact. … But the warning that he issued when he signed the [sanctions] waiver was actually the most severe threat that he’s issued to date.”
Bayroff said that one of the biggest challenges Trump presents to both the international community and domestic activists is his unpredictability. Trump will have to decide whether to waive sanctions again in May, but he’s given little indication of what he’ll do. And with Congress tied up in battles over government funding and immigration, the prospects of a legislative solution seem dim.
“The [State of the Union] was very vague, and with this administration, often times you don’t hear the rumblings of what’s going to happen until a couple of weeks out from the next deadline,” Bayroff said. “It certainly creates a challenge for everyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy that decisions seem to be made on a whim of the president.”
Trump was slightly more specific on another matter of foreign policy, threatening to cut off foreign aid from “enemies of America.”
“Dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this recognition. In 2016, American taxpayers generously sent those same countries more than 20 billion dollars in aid,” Trump said. “That is why, tonight, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stagnated, said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Some have argued that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital set back hopes for a two-state solution, and details have emerged from a possible peace plan that many speculate will be a non-starter for Palestinian leadership.
“While he’s supporting Israel in the public sphere, I think many American Jews would like to see something of a peace process moving forward,” Halber said. Whether the timing or political leadership in Palestine and Israel is right is another question. But just having a peace process for the sake of having one is not very helpful. We’ve been hearing about this deal of the century but I think American Jews would like to see more responsible and active movement on the process.”
Halber said that Trump’s unorthodox nature posed challenges during his first year, but said that ultimately, the international community just needed to get used to it.
For Stern, an ardent supporter, there was only one thing she’d like to see Trump do differently in his sophomore year: embrace his more presidential side.
“Please stop tweeting,” Stern said.